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Chains slowly creeping into Durham

By Theo Brown

The first time I came to the University of New Hampshire was in 2011, the summer before my freshman year, a shaky plebe from a small town trying to absorb every last detail.

One observation I made, also noted by my student tour guide, was the lack of chain restaurants and establishments in Durham. On the outskirts of town lay a combined Dunkin’ Donuts-Subway gas station, but otherwise the businesses downtown, around campus, and throughout Durham were locally owned, operated, and maintained.

Since then, both Dunkins’ and Subway have penetrated further into the local economic infrastructure, landing respective spots in the Memorial Union Building and the Aroma Joe’s complex at 72 Main St.

Now, Margaritas Mexican restaurant chain is coming to Durham too, under the name Tacomano, what Boston Business Journal’s Jon Chesto calls a “new fast-casual concept.” The fast-food joint is part of Margaritas’ four-part growth strategy to expand its reach throughout New England as well other parts of the East Coast.

Located at 34 Main St., Tacomano will occupy the space of several restaurants recently run-out of or retired from business.

Before Tacomano, there was Salsa, a burrito joint with limited hours that closed suddenly with no announcement from owner Justin Hebert after being in business for just a few months.

Before Salsa, Mama Mac’s mac n’ cheese bar served expensive pasta dishes to students before they too, went under, and sold to Hebert.

Prior to Mama Mac’s was the popular JP’s Eatery, famous for their “Slapshot Challenge,” featured on “Man v. Food Nation,” where the television show’s host had to finish 15 sliders and fries, topped off with a milkshake, in one sitting.

Regardless of JP’s achievements, that’s four businesses in four years in one spot.

The unsteady history of 34 Main St. may be owner Steve Petrovitsis’ reason for selling the space to Margaritas. But what consequence does this have for other local restaurants?

Pauly’s Pockets and Mixteca are the two restaurants most likely to face direct competition with Tacomano. Pauly’s sells gyros and wraps, similar to the fast-food offerings of Tacomano, while Mixteca specializes in traditional Mexican plates and a more casual, sit-down atmosphere.

Mixteca’s manager, Danielle Raymond, was unconcerned about Tacomano.

“We’re not a fast food restaurant,” she said. “We’re viewed as more of a dining experience. We provide a different style of food.”

In order for Tacomano to provide any sort of competition at all, it must first rise to success. And like any other business in Durham, it will rely on the student body, Durham’s economic backbone, to supply its main source of revenue.

Tracey Alexander, a senior at UNH, is excited for Tacomano.

“It will be nice to have another place to eat in town,” Alexander said. “Now we won’t have to drive all the way to Chipotle (Newmarket) or Dos Amigos Burritos (Dover), and it sounds like they’ve been doing some good promotional stuff.”

Paul College senior Brian Wilson had a different take on Tacomano.

“Downtown Durham is known for where businesses go to die,” Wilson said. “I honestly doubt it will last, but if it were it would need some kind of niche over its competitors. College kids are broke. Expensive places don’t last. Places that close earlier than 2 a.m. don’t last. They need to create awareness through every possible outlet, and they need affordable deals. Having the chain may help its success because the startup money is already there.”

Maybe Margaritas and the power their chain holds will be able to reverse the curse of 34 Main St., or maybe students will continue to spend their money at the restaurants they already know and love. The sustainable nature of chains is questionable, but when no other business can survive, it may be the only feasible option.

Theo Brown is a senior double majoring in English/journalism and communications.

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